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'Playing on both sides': Russian manoeuvring in Afghanistan on the rise

Over the past few months, Russia’s manoeuvring on Afghanistan appears to have increased, with indications of rising engagement with both Taliban and anti-Taliban forces.


27 Feb 2024

Image: Moscow, Russia via Canva

On 22 December 2023, the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry hosted a roundtable on two years of Taliban rule, inviting representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry, interregional diaspora, political scientists, cultural experts, ethnographers, and businesspeople. 

Importantly, among the guests were several ‘political technologists’ who have played important roles in Russia’s information and influence operations overseas, including Maxim Shugalei and Yulia Ber (née Afanasieva). Both were key on-the-ground operators for Evgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group in Africa and both sanctioned for their roles. Another participant, Alexander Prokofiev, has also been associated with the Wagner Group’s influence operations in Africa. Meanwhile another participant, Andrei Gromov, is head of the more secretive GR Group, which also plays a key role in Russian information operations in Africa. 

Shugalei has travelled to Kabul on several occasions, including shortly after the fall of Kabul, which was well documented by international media at the time, including The Washington Post, which described his trip in the following manner: “He was on a mission to promote the Kremlin’s interests. Oh, and also to undercut the United States wherever possible.” The other political technologists attending the roundtable, however, had no significant background on Afghanistan. 

The result of the roundtable – as set out in a memo shared by Shugalei – was the decision to create a draft resolution, proposing Russia lift sanctions against Afghanistan and recognise the Taliban government as legitimate. The memo also stated that Shugalei and Bogdan Deryabin, a psychologist and political technologist, would travel to Kabul in January 2024 with the intention of creating a working group with the Taliban on education and the implementation of education programmes (while respecting Afghan values and sovereignty). 

A month after the roundtable took place, on 22 January 2024, Shugalei posted on his Telegram channel that he was travelling to Kabul to conduct interviews with local residents, and build on similar research he conducted shortly after the fall of Kabul. He commented that since then, the Taliban “have managed to make significant progress in the country’s development”, adding “it’s interesting to talk to the people of Afghanistan yourself, to understand how the attitude towards the Taliban has transformed within the country”. The post was accompanied by a photograph of an interview guide. A video posted the following day showed the view from a vehicle window as it drove through the Karte Parwan area of Kabul. 

Figure: A photograph of the guide developed for interviews (in Russian) and a still from a video  showing the Kabul Atlas Hospital in Karte Parwan (Location: 34.534785, 69.137811), both shared on  Shugalei’s Telegram 

Interestingly, Shugalei claimed his trip was cut short. According to a 6 February 2024 update on his Telegram account: “The deployment ended faster than planned.” He added that “not  everything planned was realised,” but noted that another trip would most likely happen again. About this future trip, he said: “We will be able to conduct high-quality research and share with you objective data about the situation in the country”. The Telegram post then provided Shugalei’s impressions of Kabul, which were largely positive. He said that the country was “moving in the right direction” and claimed that the “local residents had no fears of the Taliban.” It is also worth noting that he also said he was stopped at a checkpoint on the way to the airport,  “despite having diplomatic plates.” This indicates that Shugalei’s trip was to some degree supported by Russia’s official in-country presence.  

Shugalei’s remarks on conducting “high quality research” and the interview guide he shared suggest he is carrying out focus groups and polling to inform potential communications work. He previously carried out similar work for the Wagner Group in various African countries, including Libya, Sudan, and Mali, as part of the Group’s support to governments or individuals in these countries; this kind of work also sought to inform Wagner communications strategies when entering a country. 

While there is no indication of active campaigns by Shugalei or Russia within Afghanistan yet, it is notable that Russia’s leading overseas influence experts have gathered on Afghanistan and declared an interest in seeking Taliban recognition. 

Russia’s opposition engagement and Saleh’s attack on US role in Afghanistan 

While the Kremlin’s arm’s length influence operators were discussing Afghanistan and recognition of the Taliban, Afghan opposition figures were becoming increasingly visible in Russia.  

On 22 January 2024 – the day Shugalei appeared to travel to Kabul – former Afghan politician and one-time First Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, gave an interview to Andrei Serenko, one of Russia’s leading experts on Afghanistan, which was published in the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The interview, which was published under the title “Americans Have Put Kabul to Sleep with their Sweet Political Lies,” featured a series of highly critical comments on the US’ role in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s takeover. This interview appeared to be in line with the Russian strategy of needling the US over Afghanistan, using the Doha Agreement and related engagement with the Taliban to undermine the US’ credibility as an international actor.

Summarising Saleh’s remarks, Serenko wrote: “Saleh calls Washington’s policy towards its Afghan ally treacherous and regrets that President Ashraf Ghani’s team, having become a hostage of American intrigues, missed the chance to save the country by refusing to support Russian initiatives in the field of the Afghan peace settlement.” 

In the interview, Saleh accused the US of replacing the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan with the Taliban in 2021. He linked what he calls “the secret deal” between the US and the Taliban, to reinstate Taliban rule in Afghanistan, to the US-Russia long-term rivalry and post-Crimea tensions between the two powers. He claimed that the US and the Taliban had been in weekly contact since 2014 and that  Russia's annexation of Crimea was a catalyst in the US decision to leave Afghanistan.

Saleh then provides details of his and President Ghani’s interactions with American authorities between 2015 and 2021. He said that he regrets the Republic’s blind trust in America, and the West in general. He admitted that ignoring regional peace initiatives, particularly those launched by Russia, parallel to America's Doha process, was a mistake. He said that the Republic lost the support of the regional countries by relying on the “political lies” of the Americans, leaving Afghanistan more vulnerable to manipulation by the US. 

It is worth noting that Saleh, a key member of the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front (NRF), has previously criticised the US-Taliban deal. On 20 October 2023, he accused the US of “gambling” its ethical and moral stance in signing the Doha Agreement with the Taliban, effectively labelling the group as “good terrorists,” for American geopolitical gain. 

Beyond providing a platform for Saleh, Russia has hosted various Afghan opposition figures in recent months. Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the NRF, met with Sergei Mironov, leader of the Just Russia Party, in late August, and again in late November to participate in the “Afghanistan Between the Past and theFuture” conference. Unconfirmed reports by Russian media suggest that Massoud and General Yasin Zia were in Moscow in December 2023 and January 2024.

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